Drops in organic traffic can be influenced by a variety of factors — some internal, some external. This post covers both internal and external causes in depth, so you can pinpoint the source of the problem and correct it.
When you’re putting resources toward digital marketing and search engine optimization, it can be maddening to experience a sudden, and seemingly unexplained, drop in organic search traffic to your website. While frustrating, traffic drops actually aren’t all that unusual. The internet is a dynamic and constantly changing place, as is the world around us. Staying up to date on web-related changes, plus responding to major shifts in world events (e.g. the coronavirus pandemic), is mostly a reactive effort. Still, for SEOs and marketers, reacting quickly when you notice a drop in your website traffic is essential.
From search engine algorithm updates to incorrect Google Analytics (GA) code, this post will help you run through a list of possible reasons your website’s traffic took a hit, so you can address the problem with speed and accuracy.
Site Traffic Factors: Internal and External
When it comes to a drop in traffic, there are two classifications to consider: internal factors and external factors. Internal factors involve changes to your website: 404s, pages missing GA codes, canonical issues, etc. External factors involve changes outside your website: Google updates, link losses, and world events.
If you’ve recently experienced a drop in traffic to your website, here’s what you need to check to get your traffic back up where it should be.
Internal factors, as was stated above, are anything that involve your website. To get to the bottom of what might be going on with your website that’s causing traffic problems, you’re going to need to use some external tools. But the first thing you need to do is identify exactly what is and isn’t the source of your trouble.
Sometimes, when it appears that you’ve lost a significant amount of traffic, you’ve only actually lost traffic data and you have a tracking issue. It’s also sometimes true that a traffic drop is only affecting a particular section of your website and not your website as a whole. Use GA to research where your problem is. GA can give you insight to help you interpret your traffic drop in a nuanced and meaningful way. Here are some Google Analytics checks to perform.
- Segment your traffic by Traffic Source. Is organic traffic being tracked correctly? Compare segments vs default channel grouping to find out.
- Look at hostnames. Are there any other websites using the same code? Incorrectly implemented hostname filters can negatively and incorrectly affect traffic data reporting.
- Check bounce rate. Is it extremely low or is self-referral traffic showing up? If it’s extremely low — say, 5% — it’s likely that the analytics tracking code wasn’t integrated into your site correctly. Self-referral traffic might mean that session counts aren’t right, and bad GA implementation is usually to blame.
- Check filters. Are there any new filters set to Property or View? If they’re only set to View — or if other filters are in place — you might be filtering out traffic data.
- Carefully weigh how you interpret New Users vs Returning Users. Depending on your website and business model, a sudden increase in returning users and a drop in new users might actually not be entirely bad news. For example, for ecommerce sites that count on repeat business, an increase in returning visitors and revenue is not a sign of failure.
- Check Mobile vs Desktop traffic. Is the traffic drop all across the board, or is it specific to mobile or desktop? If mobile, you may need to address some mobile-friendliness site issues.
- Look at specific sections of your website. Sometimes, a traffic drop is specific to a particular part of a website (i.e. a blog vs product or service pages). If there is one section that’s suffering more than others, you can hone in on it, and do further research to properly address the problem.
- Look for out-of-the-normal spikes and compare them to the previous year. Seasonality and the fluctuation that accompanies it affects almost every business, and month over month reporting can miss what are natural, predictable drops — and spikes — in traffic (e.g. Mother’s Day for a flower shop). Date range — in other words — matters. Be sure to compare drops and spikes in traffic to the same timeframe of previous years. You don’t want to spend precious time addressing a problem that isn’t really a problem.
- Check Geo. Is the drop in traffic specific to the U.S. or another country? If traffic from a country outside your market is what’s accounting for traffic loss, it’s not as big of a deal.
If the problem isn’t fixed by adjusting Analytics code, further research needs to be undertaken. Now that you’ve identified the problem pages or sections, it’s time to head into other tools to continue to research what the problem is.
Segment Traffic by Page/Keyword
Utilize year over year comparisons to see how various pages and keywords that have ranked well for you in the past have changed over time. If there is a drop in rankings, clicks, or impressions, then these pages and keywords are where you should start to fix the problem. However, if these pages and keywords don’t show much of a change, then you still have more research to do.
Here at LOCOMOTIVE Agency, we have a number of tools we turn to when we are trying to determine what’s behind a drop in site traffic for one of our clients. Some of these tools are proprietary, and we built them ourselves. Many utilize readily available software, so anyone can make use of them.
- Use Excel. When your traffic drop is still unexplained, one way you can try and get to the bottom of the issue is to simply export comparison data to Excel and then filter the pages that dropped by year and users and new users. You can also make use of a Neils Bosma plug-in/add-on for Excel that will run Header status checks.
You can also use Google Sheets if you prefer, but it requires a bit of code.
- Use Google Tag Assistant. Google Tag Assistant is a free Chrome extension. You can use it to make sure your Google tags (e.g. Adwords, Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager, etc.) are working correctly. Just maneuver to a page in question, and Tag Assistant will report on what tags are working and what tags are missing. It will also report any errors and make suggestions for improvement.
- Use Google Analytics Debugger. Another add-on for Chrome, Google Analytics Debugger allows you to check whether or not Google Analytics is firing correctly when you visit a page. Maybe it’s firing once or twice, or maybe it isn’t firing at all. It’s a helpful tool that can give you more insight into Google Analytics’ behavior for particular pages.
- Use ContentKing App. This is a real-time SEO monitoring tool that can alert you when things change on your website. It basically creates log of the changes that happen to your website over time, and that log can help you identify what might have caused a drop in traffic.
In-House LOCOMOTIVE Tools
- JR’s GSC trending and categorization notebook. This notebook helps us see trends of clicks or impressions for pages or for keywords and can show us if the trend is decreasing gradually or if there was a sudden drop.
Look at SERP Changes
Sometimes organic traffic drops, but the search rankings aren’t to blame. Instead, there may be something that has changed regarding how search results are displayed on the SERPs. Maybe Google has begun displaying a lot of rich results for particular keywords, so even though your ranking is as good as it ever was, it’s been pushed down so that it’s lower on the page.
- Use SEMrush to see how the SERP looks now. You can check year over year in SEMrush to see how the SERP looked then and now.
- For example: A local client may have shown up in map results last year but aren’t any longer because of an increase in local pack visibility.
Basically, when Google shows more rich results, it pushes down organic results. Also, if Google is showing more ads, that will also push your page further down.
Rich results also result in zero-click searches, so while search volume for a particular query might be high, clicks for that same query might be dropping.
The following image is a screenshot of a study undertaken by SparkToro using data provided by SimilarWeb. It shows data on how searches with zero clicks are increasing — by a lot. Many searches (almost 65% more in 2020 than in 2019), don’t get any clicks at all, because Google’s rich results answer the user’s question on the SERP.
In the image below, you can see the difference between desktop and mobile in regards to searches without clicks. On mobile, zero-click searches are literally taking up more and more of the pie, which will certainly affect site traffic.
Crawl the Site
If you still don’t know what’s causing your drop in traffic, it’s time to crawl your site. You want to check for:
- Pages that are missing GA code.
- New 404 Pages.
- Pages that are redirecting.
- Any canonical tag changes.
- Any meta robots tag or robots.txt file changes that are blocking Googlebot from crawling or indexing pages, resulting in dropped pages.
- Missing content.
- A decrease in the number of internal links to pages, or broken links in general.
Performing a crawl every two to three months will log and track valuable data over time making it much easier to compare when an unexplained event occurs.
Internal factors are not the only reason your site might experience a drop in traffic. External factors can affect traffic and rankings as well.
Google Algorithm Updates
Google’s algorithm changes are perhaps the most cited external factor for traffic changes. Until very recently, Google didn’t let anyone know when these updates would come. SEOs had to do research and see if other SEOs saw big shifts in rankings:
Recently, Google has been good at letting the SEO industry know of Google updates before they happen, or at least when they happen. However, this is not always the case so using the websites above can help.
Losing backlinks can dramatically affect your site traffic. Use Ahrefs to see if there were any decreases in referring domains and total backlinks. If you do find a decrease in backlinks, check to see if the pages affected by link loss are also the ones with dropping traffic. If they are, you’ll need to start outreach for linkbuilding.
What’s happening in the world, both at the local level and the global level, can also really affect rankings and web traffic. Examples of events that can affect traffic include:
- And more
Your Competitors are Doing a Better Job
Another reason you may have experienced a drop in site traffic is because your competitors might be doing a better job. Once you’ve identified the pages and keywords where you’ve lost ground, look at your main competitors, and see whether or not they also dropped in traffic or improved.
If your competitors’ traffic is improving, look into which pages are increasing. How do they compare with your pages? Is the content better? Is their site faster? Is their site user experience better and more intuitive?
You need to also look and see if there are any new sites grabbing a piece of the share of voice in the SERPs. Google updates sometimes preference certain types of sites over others as well.
- Use Sistrix. Sistrix is a great tool to compare your website’s visibility with your main competitors, especially sites that receive a lot of traffic.
- Ahrefs and SEMrush can also help you identify website rankings for relevant keywords, which will also help you get to the bottom of your traffic problem.
Seeing a dramatic drop in site traffic isn’t the end of the world, so long as it didn’t happen as a result of a Google penalty. By carefully considering internal and external factors, and making use of available tools, you can identify the source of the problem and get yourself on track to fix it.
Whether you have traffic concerns, content needs, or local search woes, LOCOMOTIVE Agency’s team of expert SEOs can help. Reach out to us today for SEO strategy and implementation.